Hell or Paradise: The Origins of Caricature

16.10.2013 - 16.02.2014



Caricatures lampooning the faults of the Church have existed for centuries; the imagery of the Middle Ages was full of strange creatures, and illuminated manuscripts contain many splendid examples of satire.

Mediaeval caricatures were generally intended to elicit at most a smile or a chuckle. In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, in contrast, as wars of religion spread mayhem across Europe, the satire grew harsher, its intention more clearly to humiliate, offend and vilify. Many engravings, flyers, medals or other objects from this period display crude, aggressive, sometimes even scatological images.

The exhibition Hell or Paradise: The Origins of Caricature (16th–18th centuries) presents artefacts from Geneva as well as Swiss and European institutions, some of which are being exhibited for the first time. Prepare to embark on a journey of discovery, from the mouth of Hell… to the gates of Paradise!

After a brief introduction to mediaeval satire, in the following rooms you will discover how both sides of the conflict – Protestants and Catholics – used the language of pictures to prove the superiority of their doctrine. The first part of the exhibition presents the role of the image as both weapon and target: worshipped by some, destroyed by others. The second part shows how Protestant propaganda questioned fundamental tenets of Catholicism. The third part addresses caricatures in the modern sense, since the individuals being mocked can be recognised. The exhibition ends in the early 18th century, with appeals for reconciliation between the religions.

In line with the Museum’s mission – to present the past in a way that makes it both interesting and relevant to the present – this exhibition aims to illuminate some of the serious issues we face today, namely the re-emergence of religious and political conflicts that were once thought to be extinct, and the new forms of satire they have inspired.